AHOY…DO YOU HAVE ANY BEER?

One of the great pleasures of my public appearances is that I often stumble across great stories about our authors. In Guelph, after my November 30 event introducing my new show GREAT SCOTS: CANADA’S FINEST STORYTELLERS WITH SCOTTISH LINKS, I was signing books when I met Neil Darroch. He told me about a childhood encounter with Farley Mowat.
When Neil was about 10 he was sailing one summer on the Ottawa River. More precisely, with their skipper, Julian Biggs, he and his father were in a race at the wide part of the river on the Lake of Two Mountains, at Hudson, Quebec. Jane and I know Hudson well, from our October show in the restored railway station theatre there, which will be the subject of a future blog.
The sailing around Hudson is still so good that the Montreal writer, my old friend Trevor Ferguson, was apparently lured to move there by its summer delights.
That summer, around 1970, young Neil was awaiting the start of the race, postponed due to light air. In his words :
“Aboard another sailboat about 100 feet away, a small, bearded fellow hailed us with the immortal words, “Ahoy! Do you have any beer?”
When my father Jim said yes, and politely offered him one, the bearded guy dived into the water, and swam to our boat. He clambered aboard. He was wearing shorts only. Very pale skin, pot belly and large beard. He looked like a pirate.
My father asked me if I knew who this man is? I replied no. My father said, “This is Farley Mowat. He is a writer!”
Mr. Mowat looked at me, scrubbed the top of my head with his hand, and said hello.
I don’t remember what was discussed between my father, our skipper, and Farley Mowat,although I assume it involved lack of wind, and the lack of beer on Mr. Mowat’s pal’s boat. I do remember that he downed a bottle quickly, thanked us, then dived off our boat, and swam back to the boat from which he came. I was left with a vivid impression of a real character. Someone who did not hesitate to do what was necessary at the moment, and damn the torpedos!
I have read most of Mr. Mowat’s works. A great writer!”

I’m sure that one of the books that Neil must have read was The Boat That Wouldn’t Float, which became a huge best-seller when it came out in 1969, just before this encounter. Yet from Neil we learn that Farley’s dicing with death among small boats had not put him off sailing for ever…….and the even more astonishing fact that his dangerous voyages with Jack McClelland around Newfoundland had been floated on a tide of rum, yet now he was content with a simple beer.
I have my own memories of Farley in those days, and he features in Across Canada By Story. The man who helped Farley select the Non-Floating Boat, was my Newfoundland author, Harold Horwood. Farley liked Harold, and would send in helpful quotes to advance Harold’s career. But because he hated the USA (he used to, famously, fire his shotgun at American planes flying overhead…high overhead) any letter from Farley to me at Doubleday Canada arrived in an envelope defaced by Farley’s indignant hand with comments about just how “Canadian” we were.
In my 2015 book you might like to read about the fun I had publishing him. As Neil Darroch says, he was a great writer.

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OPTIONS FOR MY NEW SHOW

First, of course, an affectionate word about AVIE BENNETT, who passed away four days ago. Jane and I were in Vancouver when the Toronto Star tracked me down for a phone interview about Avie in Stanley Park.  It was strangely appropriate for a man who took the M&S description, “The Canadian Publishers”, so seriously.

I was glad that The Star devoted a front-page story to Avie’s life and death. My own recollections of working daily with him as the Publisher of McClelland & Stewart when he was the Chairman , from 1988 till 2000, are vivid and proud. The Star story ended with my recollection of my May 23 show at the Lieutenant Governor’s Chambers in Queen’s Park. I had  begun by thanking everyone for coming, recognising my 10 year-old nephew Alistair (who leapt to his feet with unrestrained enthusiasm), and then noting the presence of 89-year old Avie, who was there on a walker , with the help of his friend Bill Ross. It had taken him a great deal of trouble and determination to come to my show, to support me, and I spoke briefly about his role in supporting Canadian writers.

Without prompting, the audience burst into warm applause. Avie was delighted.

He died ten days later, after this final triumphant public appearance.

I’ll be writing a fuller appreciation later.

 

Now that I’ve given my Sesquicentennial shows celebrating ” CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS / LES PLUS GRANDS RACONTEURS CANADIENS  1867 — 2017″  in various places, a few options have emerged.

OPTION ONE: The full show, with an Intermission when we reach 1967. This is the show I have given in Ottawa on April 29,  and (in more polished form) at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver on May 31. This is also the form chosen by a number of Literary Festivals across the country for the next few months.

The next such event, running almost two hours, including the Intermission, will be on the roof of Ontario, where so many rivers start, at FLESHERTON on JUNE 9, at 7pm.  Tickets are still available. Contact museum@greyhighlands  for details about the show in the Kineplex.

OPTION TWO: A condensed 50-minute version of the show, concentrating on the modern era, from 1967 to the present. This is the version that I gave at The Lieutenant Governor’s Queen’s Park Chambers. Susan Swan the novelist was in the audience, and kindly called it ” a witty historical medley of Canadian writerly talent…How fortunate Canada is that you are doing your show across the country. If only there were more Doug Gibsons going out in the world to tell it about our great literary tradition, our wonderful history of writers and writing.”

OPTION THREE: The first 100 Years, from 1867 to 1967.  This version, running one hour, has already been chosen by some Ontario groups. In every case, of course, I deal with our major writers in English and in French, and the show is enlivened by bursts of Canadian music, and the work of other Canadian artists from the time. And always, of course, I speak about the author against the background caricature by the brilliant Anthony Jenkins.

I’m still building a National Tour. Please let any interested group (Library/Bookstore/Museum/ Community) know about the shows we can bring to them. Contact me at doug1929@rogers.com

A NEW SHOW: 150 YEARS OF GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS . . . 1867–2017

A new stage performance by DOUGLAS GIBSON, announced here first, to my faithful blog friends!

From coast to coast to coast (Ungava Bay, aboard an Adventure Canada cruise ship!) former publisher Douglas Gibson has given over 160 performances of the dramatized versions of his first two books. Against the backdrop of the brilliant author caricatures by Anthony Jenkins (of Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Pierre Trudeau, and many others), he has told behind-the-scenes stories about the men and women he got to know well.

Internationally, he has taken his show celebrating Canadian authors to London (where he fell off the Canada House stage, a West-End triumph) to Beijing, to Mexico, and beyond.

Now he has created a new show – again with the help of Anthony Jenkins – to celebrate our greatest storytellers  since Confederation….English, French, and Indigenous. People in many Canadian communities may think that staging  the show is a fine way to celebrate our Sesquicentennial.

The power-point show follows our history decade by decade. Each decade begins with a burst of Canadian music from the time. On screen we see a familiar photo of the decade (“Ah, yes,that was the time of the Klondike Gold Rush”), and then several iconic pieces of Canadian art, by people like Cornelius Krieghoff, or Lawren Harris, or Mary Pratt.  Then the burst of music stops, and the caricature of the chosen author appears, and fascinating (boiling his moccasins?) stories about the chosen author and his or her best book are excitingly told (in front of a train?)

Usually, in each decade only one novelist in French and one in English will be chosen. This means that the show will be controversial (“How could you leave out X from the 1980s?”), but Doug Gibson will be happy to provoke spirited debate about our best authors. And while the show will be in English, everything on the screen, such as book titles and the names of the translation (“Kamouraska and Kamouraska, you say?”) will be bilingual. We all may learn more about our greatest authors, including the epic Haida storyteller, Skaay.

To learn more about booking the show,which will run from May-December 2017, please consult www.douglasgibsonbooks.com, or contact Jane Gibson at jane1929@rogers.com ,or phone 416 489 1929.

Please spread the news.

THE RUNNING OF THE DEER

Having what you might call “an editorial mind” can be a blessing or a curse. Musing about the hidden meanings of well-known phrases can lead to surprises, or at least insomnia.
Consider, for example, the ubiquitous Christmas Carol, “The Holly and the Ivy”. The chorus begins.. “O, the rising of the sun, And the running of the deer. The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir”.
All very pleasant, right? Perhaps especially the prancing and trotting of the little deer, some of which might even be agreeably red-nosed.
Except that the editorial mind recalls that in the Middle Ages — when “The Holly and the Ivy” was written — maintaining a reliable supply of food was difficult. Getting deer-meat on the table involved great dangers for ordinary, starving peasants, who would be killed if they dared to poach a deer from someone’s forest. As for the lordly forest-owners, to get their supply of venison they would occasionally organise a ” deer drive”. They would noisily “run” the startled deer, flushed out from their hiding places, towards a line of armed bowmen, who would then shoot them down and butcher them.
That was what “the running of the deer” involved. An interesting way to re-interpret a lovely, apparently innocent, old carol.
There was a Canadian equivalent, for many generations, in the buffalo hunt on the Prairies. Buffalo (or Bison, if you prefer) are huge, and fast. Until the local humans were able to use horses to keep up with them, or to invent fine bows and arrows to shoot them down, they had to rely on cunning to catch them and use them for food. So they invented what we cheerfully call “buffalo jumps”.
I’m happy that we’ve dropped the euphemisms by adopting the name Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for the Provincial Historic site near Fort Macleod in Alberta. I went there once with my friend Andy Russell, the historian and mountain man. Because I was with Andy, they let me go behind the scenes. We walked up the slight slope to the flat prairie, then turned, and got a buffalo’s eye view as we sauntered unsuspectingly towards the hidden cliff-top.
It was easy to imagine how successful the hidden “drivers” leaping out , yelling and waving blankets, must have been at keeping the snorting, stampeding herd going straight towards the hidden cliff edge, where the slight downward slope turned into a roaring plunge to death, and smashed in heads.
And of course, the butchering and skinning took the hard-working women many days, and with collected saskatoon berries produced the pemmican that opened up the West to the Fur Trade. But that, of course is another story… which takes us a long way from the Running of the Deer.

We are just waiting for our vegetarian grandchildren to arrive for Dinner. Merry Christmas

MARSHALLING NEW FACTS ABOUT McLUHAN

In Across Canada By Story I spend some time discussing my links with Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Today I learned some interesting new facts about both of them. This was courtesy of an intriguing new Exhibition on McLuhan in the St. Michael’s College Library at the University of Toronto ….which happens to located on “Marshall McLuhan Way”.

The well-known facts about Marshall are all there, including the unfamiliar news that at first he published as “Herbert Marshall McLuhan”. We  are reminded that he first produced the phrase “the medium is the message” at a conference for radio broadcasters in Vancouver as early as 1957, and that The Gutenberg Galaxy  came out in 1962, winning the Governor-General’s Prize (from  a jury chaired by Northrop Frye) and establishing his reputation, so that in a few years the San Francisco Chronicle was calling him “the hottest academic property around”.

By  1967 his fame had spread so that the Toronto Star called him “Toronto’s most influential and controversial celebrity.” From 1965 t0 1969 in the US alone, interviews with him ran in Harpers, Newsweek, The New York Times, Life, Fortune, Esquire, Look, TV Guide, McCalls, Glamour, Vogue, Family Circle, Mademoiselle, the Saturday Evening Post , and in Playboy.

Ah, yes, Playboy…. the magazine full of airbrushed naked women who occasionally caught the passing eyes of teenaged boys who really bought the magazine “for the articles”. After Playboy ran their 1968 piece on Marshall (labelled “a candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media”), Marshall wrote to Jack Kessie, the Managing Editor. The letter, on display in the Exhibition, was pure McLuhan. He assured Mr. Kessie that “nudity is not realism.Compared to the clad figure, nudity is sculpture. Clothing is an anti-environment, a kind of weaponry, providing an enclosed space that is pictorial rather than sculptural….'”

To reassure Playboy’s head man further, he went on “Of course, basic human sex attraction is olfactory, not photo-factory, hence the playful harmlessness and natural innocence of your pictures.” Perhaps we can assume that before Mr. Kessie went home to be greeted by his sweet-smelling wife, he considered raising the price of ads for perfumes in the magazine.

I have written about how Marshall and Northrop Frye (that’s Herman Northrop Frye) were two very large fish in a fairly small Toronto pond. They were wary of each other and tried to avoid giving offence, working together as U. of T. English Department colleagues. They were, I argue in the book, friendly rivals. Yet in the Exhibition there is a 1971 letter about Marshall from Frye  that hints at the strain. Ronald S. Berman, the Chair of the National Endowment For The Humanities had written to Frye from Washington asking if he would recommend McLuhan to give a major speech.

In part Frye’s letter reads…”and I think he would do a very good job for you, assuming that he took the assignment seriously and wrote out his speech beforehand. He makes a deliberate technique of uttering what he calls “probes”, or challenges to the imagination, which to many people sound like simply irresponsible statements, and his habit of regarding the whole of culture as a gigantic allegory of his own view is growing on him.”

At the end of the letter, Frye’s irritation at having been lured into these frank statements seems to me flick out, like a dragon’s tongue. See what you think..” If you invited him to give the lecture you would, I think, be taking something of a risk, but I think you ought to take a risk, like everybody else, and not hedge your bets by enquiries of this kind.

Yours sincerely”

From the Exhibition I walked for five minutes to re-visit Marshall’s old Centre For Culture and Technology, at 39A Queen’s Park Crescent. It still reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s famous phrase “an unused Newfoundland fishing shack” and I was unable to get inside, to remind me of visits to see Marshall there. But I was able to clamber through the undisturbed snow, to peer through the window inside the room that launched a thousand probes.

IN PRAISE OF JIM MUNRO

We all lost an important friend this week when Jim Munro died in Victoria. He was a major figure on Canada’s book scene for over 60 years, a fact that was recognised in 2014 when he received the Order of Canada for “his vital championship of countless Canadian writers and for his sustained community engagement.”

In 1963 he and his wife Alice moved from Vancouver to set up a bookstore in Victoria. They worked together in the store, and raised three daughters, a life well described in Sheila Munro’s memoir, Lives of Mothers and Daughters. In 1972, the Munros divorced, with Alice returning to Ontario to write, and Jim staying in Victoria to create the most beautiful bookstore in Canada. If that sounds like excessive praise, consider the fact that recently National Geographic Magazine ranked Munro’s books, in a former Royal Bank building at the heart of downtown’s Government Street, as the third best bookstore IN THE WORLD.

I was a frequent visitor. As my second book, Across Canada By Story, makes clear, I’ve always loved roaming around the country, meeting authors and people in the Canadian book world. Seeing Jim again was always a delight. I’d drop in to the store, chat with wise book people on staff like Dave Hill, then join Jim in the office tucked away just to the right of the front door, to discuss the book trade in general. As a Canadian Bookseller of the Year, more than once, he was heavily involved in bookselling issues (chains, Amazon, Canadian agencies,”Buying around”, e-books, and much else — we never got on to colouring books) and I always learned a lot from this cheery, bluff man (The under-used word “bluff” is precise, for this friendly, red-faced fellow with, latterly, a neat beard.)

The same pleasure applied to his visits to the annual Canadian Booksellers Association trade fair, summer events usually held in Toronto, when meeting with Jim and his team was always a highlight of a major event in the publishing calendar. Down through the years, as a shrewd local link with the publishing world, he sold untold millions of books to grateful readers. The cultural impact is hard to over-state.

Long after their divorce he remained a strong supporter of Alice’s writing, and as her editor and publisher I found myself receiving advice about this or that forthcoming book, its title, price, and its cover. Mostly, I seemed to be doing all right.

Through the years the Munro daughters kept their links with the store and its staff. When I was in Stockholm for the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 2014, Munro’s Books leapt into the Swedish limelight. Our Ambassador to Sweden, Kenneth MacCartney,  staged a splendid celebration at lunch, inviting many Swedish literary figures to this proud event for Canada, and — ahem– some of us made speeches about Alice, the author of The Love Of A Good Woman, and many other titles dealing with affairs of the heart. It was all very fine.

Yet one of the finest moments came when the Ambassador introduced his wife, Susan, and revealed that as a student in Victoria he had courted her, successfully, while she was working in Munro’s Books.

 

A NEW TORONTO SHOW

FREE, AT THE DEER PARK LIBRARY , ON ST.CLAIR AVENUE AT YONGE STREET, ON TUESDAY , DECEMBER 6 AT 2 pm.

 

BOB DYLAN AND LEONARD COHEN

I was disappointed to read that Bob Dylan has decided not to go to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a huge loss — for him. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies knows what a pinnacle they represent. Attendance is so cherished that to get into the hall (all gentlemen wearing the de rigueur white tie and tails) you must present not only your ticket, with the specific seat number noted, but also YOUR PASSPORT, to prove that you are the person to whom the valuable ticket was issued.

Jane and I still remember every dreamy detail of our 2013 day there as part of the Alice Munro party. We also remember the sense that we were part of what I can only describe as “the world at its best”.

Now, with his unfortunate decision, Bob Dylan will miss all of that.

I suspect that, even at death’s door, Leonard Cohen would not have made that mistake.

I knew Leonard, a little, because when I was the Publisher at M&S, we published his new poetry books. In the process, I worked cordially with Leonard’s charming agent, who was secretly stealing all of his money. Ironically, this crime had the beneficial effect of forcing Leonard to revive his career, making him earn new money by going on tour again, and writing and performing fine new songs.

I have two memories of Leonard that may be worth sharing. First, when he was at McGill, he studied English with Hugh MacLennan. They liked each other, and became friends. Hugh told me that once in private conversation Leonard was explaining the opportunities opened by the new, open sexual freedoms among young people like him. The older Presbyterian was scandalised , and protested: “But Leonard, you remind me of a girl I knew back in Nova Scotia. She was called “Anytime Annie”!”

Leonard did not mend his ways, to the relief of many ladies down through the years.

Once, when he visited our Toronto office in what was a busy day of interviews, for lunch we brought in to the Boardroom some unglamorous sandwiches from Druxy’s downstairs. Leonard was perfectly happy, expecting absolutely no special treatment. He chatted happily with me and Avie Bennett and Ellen Seligman, about subjects ranging from Hugh MacLennan to how to get money from a bank machine in sketchy areas in LA. In such a situation, he explained, using an on-street machine was asking for trouble, making yourself a target. So what you looked for was a bank machine inside a small grocery store. There you cased the joint, apparently immersed in reading the ingredients of, say, a bottle of Pepsi.

Then, when the coast was clear, you drifted across to the machine, still apparently deep into your Pepsi scrolls, quickly punched in your banking needs, grabbed and concealed the cash, then escaped to the front of the store with your Pepsi purchase. Muggers were not interested in a man bearing a bottle of Pepsi.

In the mourning that followed Leonard’s death, I was pleased by how seriously our newspapers took his loss. The CBC, too, devoted important hours to paying tribute to him and his work. I found myself deeply moved by the message that he had sent to Marianne, his long-time lover, when she was dying in Norway this summer. His loving message ended with the words…”see you down the road.”

On Remembrance Day came my moment of revelation. Unlike Bob Dylan, I would argue, Leonard Cohen knew what was really important. When someone came to him asking if he would recite “In Flanders Fields”, he said yes. Many major musical stars would have laughed off the idea of reciting this poem from grade school , about the First World War, for Heaven’s sake, as hopelessly “uncool”.

Leonard read the poem aloud. As the CBC ended its broadcast of Remembrance Day with Leonard reading that poem, the fact that it was happening  in the week of his death was almost too much to bear. But most powerful of all was how brilliantly he read it. No tricks, nothing fancy, just a serious, perfect reading, by a poet who knew what really mattered.

I’m sorry that Stockholm will not see him.